In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will rule whether sage grouse should be listed as an endangered species. ©Eric Rock

Gray wolves in the Great Lakes region received some good news last month. In a surprise, unusual ruling on December 19, 2014, United States District Judge Beryl A. Howell ordered that gray wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin be placed back on the federal endangered species list. Stating that taking wolves off the list in the Western Great Lakes was “arbitrary and capricious,” Judge Howell’s order now bans further wolf hunting and trapping in those three states, where the combined wolf population is estimated to be 3,600.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) dropped federal protections from the Great Lakes wolves and handed their management over to the states. In Wisconsin, where I live, a hunting season was promptly instituted; and in the first year of the organized hunt in 2012-2013, 117 wolves were killed, one more than the legal limit. During the 2013-2014 Wisconsin winter season, 257 wolves were killed (six more than the limit). This season, 154 wolves were killed—exceeding the state limit by four wolves—before officials ended the hunt on December 5, 2014. More than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves have been killed since 2012.

At this same time, in the western United States, sage grouse conservationists are wondering if keeping this severely threatened bird off the endangered species list might be a better plan of action in order to protect these birds.

Are sage grouse conservationists onto something? Is it possible that achieving an endangered status for a species—with the resultant long, legal battles—could actually work against its recovery?

Protections for the gray wolf have involved long, legal battles. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Wolves: listed and delisted

FWS is currently conferring with the U.S. Department of Justice and Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin about whether to appeal Judge Howell’s ruling. The agency’s stance is that wolves have completely recovered in the Great Lakes region and the states have clearly demonstrated their ability to effectively manage their Canis lupus populations.

Gray wolves were poisoned, shot or trapped into near-extinction in all of the Lower 48 states in the last century. Only a remnant pocket remained in northern Minnesota when gray wolves were added to the federal endangered list in 1974.

Since that time—but especially in the last decade—there have been several court battles over the gray wolf. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials tried to remove various populations of gray wolves from the endangered species list in 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2012. Arguing that the wolf’s situation remains precarious, the Humane Society of the United States successfully sued to stop the 2007, 2009 and now the 2012 delistings.

Sage grouse: never-to-be-listed?

Such back-and-forth battles regarding wolves has inspired some conservationists, who are working with other species, to eschew the listing route for other solutions. In the West, sage grouse advocates are hoping that a new strategy, now termed “cooperative conservation,” will keep the grouse off the list entirely.

In this model, energy industries, landowners, environmental groups and state agencies voluntarily pool money for habitat restoration and agree to site energy developments outside of the bird’s core habitat. By working together, it is hoped that costly, lengthy and hassle-filled legal battles can be avoided.

Some sage grouse populations are down by 90 percent from their heyday. ©Eric Rock

If history is an example, this strategy may be more optimal for wildlife. Out of about 680 species listed as threatened or endangered in the United States today, only 27 have ever been delisted, which means recovery after being listed is a monumental challenge. And in today’s economic climate, the FWS is forced to pronounce many threatened species as “warranted but precluded” from being on the list due to budget concerns. It’s clear that traditional regulatory enforcement isn’t going to work for many species.

On the other hand, according to the Audubon Society, cooperative conservation has already worked on a small scale for some animals. In August, the FWS opted not to list a population of Arctic grayling in Montana because the fish’s numbers have doubled since federal, state and private groups began collaborating in 2006. The dunes sagebrush lizard, a native of Texas and New Mexico, stayed off the list due to a conservation agreement between oil and gas operators, landowners and state agencies.

Money can be a huge motivating factor. Because a large portion of sage grouse habitat is also prime territory for coal, gas, oil, uranium and wind development, Wyoming stands to lose an estimated $8 billion in revenue from energy development if the bird is listed. Following Wyoming’s lead, 10 more sage grouse home states are setting up conservation agreements. For energy developers, they mean limiting where development can occur and possibly paying into a habitat restoration fund. Landowners agree to measures such as removing invasive plants that choke out sagebrush or taking down fences that can cause grouse to crash.

An FWS ruling on sage grouse is expected in September 2015. In the meantime, some are saying that keeping the species off the list might be the greatest conservation success of all.

Given what’s happened to gray wolves, do you think the goal should be to keep species off the endangered species list and opt for cooperative conservation instead?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy